Christmas in Spain

¡Feliz Navidad!

Spaniards are big into Christmas. The eating, the gift giving, the shopping craziness, it’s all here with a distinctly Spanish twist.

Hold off on the presents

The day for gift giving isn’t Christmas, but Epiphany on January 6. Christmas Eve isn’t a time for anticipating what’s under the tree but for sitting with the family chowing down heaps of good food while ignoring the king’s annual speech on television. Epiphany is the chance for another Big Feed. Spaniards don’t really need an excuse to have a giant dinner with all the family!
Shopping continues right into early January. After Epiphany there are Las Rebajas (“The Sales”) when stores try to get rid of their excess stock. Spaniards wanting to save money can give a notice that they’re going to buy someone something, and then buy it when the big sales come. This year many shops have started Las Rebajas early because of La Crisis. I’ll let you translate that one for yourself.

Los Reyes Magos, not Santa

Santa is known here, of course, and you see lots of inflatable Santas hanging from people’s windows, but he takes second place to the The Three Kings or Wise Men. Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltasar showed up on Epiphany to give gifts to the baby Jesus. Every year they fly into Madrid and other cities to much pomp and ceremony and go on a big parade through town.
Baltasar, the African king, is the kid’s favorite. You see him and his buddies hanging out in department stores taking requests from excited children, and kids send lists of toys to them like American kids do with Santa. Baltasar used to be played by Spaniards in blackface, something that doesn’t have the cultural baggage here that it does in the United States, although I still haven’t gotten used to seeing it! Luckily the influx of African immigrants in the past few years has provided a ready supply of real Africans to play the favorite Wise Man.
On the night of January 5 people put one of their shoes in the living room for the kings to place presents next to. It’s also nice to leave out some milk and cookies for the Kings’ camels. They have to walk all around Spain in one night and they get hungry.

%Gallery-80910%Bethlehem, not Christmas trees

Because the Wise Men are so popular there’s a long tradition of making dioramas showing them coming to see the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, Belén in Spanish. They’re called Belénes and can get quite elaborate, with entire towns containing hundreds of figures. Check out the gallery for some examples. Many private homes have a Belén and shops often put them in their windows. A pharmacy near my apartment has the best in my barrio. It fills the entire front window and takes a couple of days to set up.
Christmas trees, originally a German tradition, have never been big here. Considering the size of most Spanish apartments you couldn’t have a very impressive tree anyway! Besides, if you had a big tree there would be no room for a Belén.
Check out the gallery for some fine examples of Spanish Belénes and others from around the world, featured in an exhibition by Caja Duero on until January 10 in Madrid.

El Gordo

There’s also the big national Christmas lottery called “El Gordo”. The grand prize always runs into the millions of euros and there are lots of smaller prizes to tempt people who don’t understand statistics into playing again and again. There are so many winning numbers that the drawing takes most of the day. The numbers are sung out by schoolchildren on TV and radio and their high-pitched sing-song recitation of the numbers is one of the sounds of Christmas here.

So what about Spanish New Year? One distinct custom is that as the clock starts striking twelve you have to eat a dozen grapes before it finishes. That’s harder than you think. Other than that people hit the town, drink a lot, and make out with people they probably shouldn’t. Some traditions are universal.

Church of the Nativity and Bethlehem Memories

It’s only a few days after Christmas and people are asking, “How were the holidays?” as if once the 25th passes there’s no more need for cheer bearing gatherings or reasons to feel merry and bright. I’m still resonating.

When I read Jamil Hamid’s essay about the real Bethlehem and what Christmas used to be like there when he was a child, I felt the same wistfulness about world peace that Hamid, a Muslim, expresses. He mentions the Church of the Nativity, thought to be where Jesus was born. It has a fascinating history and one that continues to transform with Bethlehem’s changing cultural make-up.

His essay also reminded me of my own Bethlehem feelings that I experienced one Christmas Eve in The Gambia. I also thought about the Ohio connection to The Church of the Nativity. (When you live in Ohio long enough, the connections to other places are amazing. I can come up with about anything, however, I can assure you this is an honest to goodness connection.)

This past October, I headed to the Bethlehem Cave and Nativity Museum outside Akron to interview the woman who gives tours and take photos for an article I was writing on nativities across Ohio. The cave and museum are housed in the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Parish, a Catholic Church that picked up on the nativity theme and ran with it. The cave, built in a room downstairs is patterned after the one in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Akron’s replica was designed by the church’s priest based on sketches he made when he used to take tours to the real Bethlehem Cave. He is an expert on the church’s history but does not take tour groups there anymore because ihe believes it has become too dangerous. His church, though, is devoted to the place. Throughout the rest of the church in Akron there are references to the church in Bethlehem.

Along with the cave, the church has a nativity set collection filled with nativities from all over the world. If you ever want a good tiding fix, head here. You can find out a lot about the church in Bethlehem that Hamid writes about. You can also see the star at the bottom of the alter.